The Evidence on GMO Safety

This page started as a followup to an appearance I made on NBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show in April of 2013, speaking about GMOs.  You can see the video at the show’s website or embedded below.

See also:        Part 2              Part 3              Part 4  

Or if you prefer more combative television, you can watch the fast and fierce debate between myself and GMO opponent Jeffrey Smith on CCTV.

First, a statement on my interests:  I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company.  I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them.  Nothing of the sort.  My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet.  All the research I presented was research I did when writing my book on innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

I do believe that we’ll eventually have labels on genetically modified foods.  So long as those labels are in the ingredients section and not needlessly frightening, I think that’s fine.  Clearly a set of people very much want labels, and the resistance to labeling gives the appearance that there’s something to hide with genetically modified foods. There isn’t. Genetically modified foods are safe.

Because there wasn’t enough time to go into detail on either show, I want to link to statements from the world’s most respected scientific bodies and journals on the topic of GMO safety. Here’s what they say.  (Update: Below that I will answer some other common questions on GMOs which I receive.)

The US National Academy of Sciences

This is the premier scientific body in the United States.  They have repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, noting that after billions of meals served, “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

They’ve also found that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops.  The National Academy of Science’s 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, found that GM crops planted to date had reduced insecticide use, reduced use of the most dangerous herbicides, increased the frequency of conservation tillage and no-till farming, reduced carbon emissions, reduced soil runoffs, and improved soil quality. The report said that, “Generally, GE (GMO) crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science

This is the largest organization made up of professional scientists in the United States, and also publisher of Science magazine, one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world.  The AAAS says “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

The American Medical Association

The premier body of physicians in the United States.  They have consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food, stating “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods”.

The European Commission

Europe is extremely anti-GMO.  But even there, the scientific community is clear that genetically modified foods are safe.  The scientific advisor to the European Comission has said “there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.

The European Commission’s 2010 report on genetically engineered food (based on independent research not funded by any biotech company) said: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Royal Society of Medicine

England’s top medical society, the British equivalent of the American Medical Association, published a review of all the information about genetically modified foods that concluded, “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

The Largest Ever Review of Studies on GMOs

In 2013, a group of Italian scientists (from a country where no GMOs are grown) conducted the largest-ever survey of scientific information on genetically modified foods. They looked at 1,783 published research papers, reviews, and reports on GMOs. What they found was no evidence of harm.

“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

The French Supreme Court

The French Supreme Court isn’t a scientific body, but I mention them here because their recent decision was so remarkable.  France is a very anti-GMO country.  Yet the French Supreme Court struck down France’s GMO ban, ruling that the government had shown no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment.  You can read about that here.

Don’t GMOs Cause Cancer in Rats? Or Infertility?

Thus far there have been several hundred studies on the safety of genetically engineered food.  All but a handful have found them completely safe.  The only studies that have found that genetically modified foods harm animals (the ones quoted as saying that they cause cancer and infertility) all come from one laboratory, that of Gilles-Éric Séralini in France.

Yet Séralini’s studies have been widely debunked.  The study linking GMOs to cancer was forcibly retracted by the journal that published it (something very rare in science).

In fact, the study, was clearly flawed from the beginning. It was immediately criticized by the six major French scientific academies and by neutral scientists and science journalists not affiliated with biotech companies.

Perhaps most damning is the way in which Séralini manipulated the press. He refused to allow science journalists to see the actual paper before publication day, preventing those journalists from going through their normal process of calling scientists to get opinions about the results before writing up their news stories. As award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer (also not affiliated with any biotech firm) wrote, science journalists were played.

Even GMO opponents found the rat-cancer link hard to believe.  My fellow guest on MSNBC, food policy advocate (and GMO opponent) Marion Nestle, herself said that she found the Seralini study linking GMOs to cancer hard to believe.  Marion Nestle writes:

These results are so graphically shocking (see the paper’s photographs), and so discrepant from previous studies (see recent review in the same journal), that they bring out my skeptical tendencies.  (Note: Although Séralini is apparently a well known opponent of GMOs, his study—and that of the review—were funded by government or other independent agencies.)  … the study is weirdly complicated.

http://www.foodpolitics.com/2012/09/what-to-make-of-the-scary-gmo-study/

Long Term Safety Studies

A common myth is that there are no long-term safety studies of GMOs.  There have, in fact, been dozens of long-term studies of feeding GMOs to animals for their entire lives, sometimes for as many as ten generations in a row, with no ill effects discovered whatsoever. Here’s a good survey of long-term and multi-generation GMO safety studies.

Independently Funded Studies

Another common myth is that Monsanto or other biotech companies control all biotech research, preventing independent research from happening.  This is not the case.  Two sets of independent studies:

- The European Commission Report I mention above includes 130 independent studies, paid for by the EU, conducted by more than 500 teams.

- BioFortified maintains a (largely distinct) list of more than 120 independently funded studies which were conducted outside the biotech industry and without biotech dollars.

A Scientific Consensus

All together, the scientific consensus around the safety of genetically modified foods is as strong as the scientific consensus around climate change.  These foods have been studied more than any other, and everything tells us that they’re safe.

Update: Other Common Concerns on GMOs

I receive a few other frequent questions on GMOs that don’t relate to safety, so answering three of the most frequent here:

What About Superweeds?

Pesticide resistance is a real thing. It’s also an old thing. The first notion that it exists dates back to 1914, when A.L. Melander published a paper asking “Can insects become resistant to sprays?”  Realistically, resistance has been evolving for the 4,000 or so years that humans have been using pesticides.

It’s clear today that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate (Roundup) and that this is threatening the use of roundup.  It’s not at all clear that this has anything to do with GMOs, however. The rate of the evolution of new pesticide resistant weeds appears to be the same for GMO vs. non-GMO crops. That doesn’t make the problem any less important. But it suggests that pointing the finger at GMOs is missing the point.

What About Farmer Suicides in India?

The allegation has been made that GMOs have been driving farmers in India to commit suicide. Farmers in India do commit suicide, and every one of those is a tragedy.

However, the farmer suicides started long before GMOs were introduced to that country, and the suicide rate has held steady or slightly dropped since GMOs were introduced.

Every suicide is a tragedy, but linking them to GMOs is false.

What About Corporate Control of Food?

Patents end. Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready I Soy expires in late 2014. Last I checked, that was the single most planted GMO in the United States. After that patent expires (and unlike copyrights, patents do actually expire) the seed and trait will be in the public domain, with farmers able to replant, seed growers able to cross-breed the strain, and academics and other companies able to tinker with the gene, without owing Monsanto anything.

The majority of GMOs planted in the US and the world today will see their patents expire in the next decade.

More Reading: The Infinite Resource

You can read more about genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

 

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